Utopian for Beginners: An Amateur Linguist Loses Control of the Language He Invented
Language is the most powerful tool we utilize in understanding the world around us. Language is as much about culture as it is about communication.
In response to ever changing cultural and modes of communication, language too, changes. Once familiar words take on whole new or different meanings. Vocabulary changes with changes of perception and reality.
There have been attempts at creating universal languages but they have all failed. From the biblical Tower of Babel to To Esperanto and less ambitious efforts such as the Soviets introducing Russian to eastern European nations unlucky to find themselves behind the Iron Curtain, attempts to find that universal language have failed.
Some cite logistical failures, others cite resentment as a foreign non native language was imposed on them but in the end, it seems people want their own language, understanding that language is an integral part of their identity. In a world where universal ideals and goals seem to be necessary, we also see that multiculturalism also means protecting and cherishing one’s native language- even if that is at odds at times with those universal goals.
What follows is the story of the creation of a wholly new language, meant to be universal.
There are so many ways for speakers of English to see the world. We can glimpse, glance, visualize, view, look, spy, or ogle. Stare, gawk, or gape. Peek, watch, or scrutinize. Each word suggests some subtly different quality: looking implies volition; spying suggests furtiveness; gawking carries an element of social judgment and a sense of surprise. When we try to describe an act of vision, we consider a constellation of available meanings. But if thoughts and words exist on different planes, then expression must always be an act of compromise.
Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like “knight.” No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.
“Natural languages are adequate, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimal,” John Quijada, a fifty-four-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles, told me. In 2004, he published a monograph on the Internet that was titled “Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language.” Written like a linguistics textbook, the fourteen-page Web site ran to almost a hundred and sixty thousand words. It documented the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of a language that Quijada had spent three decades inventing in his spare time. Ithkuil had never been spoken by anyone other than Quijada, and he assumed that it never would be.
In his preface, Quijada wrote that his “greater goal” was “to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual effort: an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”